How we love to watch the mighty fall...
As Brian Williams star comes crashing down, call his story about being on that helicopter that crashed in Iraq whatever you like--embellishing, fabricating, lying. It's far more interesting to conjecture about why he might have done it in the first place.
Maureen Dowd, never a shrinking violet, uses the word "pathological" as she wonders in her column why on earth a guy who already had the "premier job at NBC News" would feel "that he needed Hemimngwayesque, bullets-whizzing-by flourishes to puff himself up," citing his "reach for celebrity" and, as one NBC reporter tells her, that "there was no one around to pull his chin when he got too far over the top." Maybe. She also makes the obvious point, as have many others, that network news has for so long now been "part of the entertainment, branding and cross promotion business" that it's really quite absurd in this day and age to expect anything like accuracy and objectivity in network news.
Personally I lost all respect for network news during the reporting of the crack "epidemic" way back in the 1980s, when all three networks in a wild stampede of sensationalism routinely fabricated stories about "crack babies" that fed a national hysteria and scored the highest ratings since Watergate. I haven't trusted them since.
Certainly It's ironic--perhaps delusional?--that at a time when the most bold-faced lies are told on a daily basis from the pinnacles of government to churches to the world of business, we should still expect honesty, integrity and accuracy from our news anchors, non-fiction writers, and academics. But we do.
Speaking of Watergate, it marked the zenith of respect for the media in this country, when the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought the lies of Richard Nixon to account, leading to his resignation. Woodward has since gone on to become one of the most respected doyens of American journalism, publishing book after best-selling book about politics and government.
When I was researching the John Belushi story for my last book, I had occasion to carefully study Wodward's book Wired for the accuracy of its reporting about Belushi. How accurate was the book? All I will do is quote Penny Marshall, one of scores of people he interviewed, who were shocked by the book: "It makes you wonder if Nixon might have been innocent."
But still, even in a world where Bob Woodward, one of our paragons of journalistic integrity, is really no more credible than a tabloid entertainer--Kitty Kelley with a Pulitzer--one has to wonder what Williams was thinking.
Being on television in front of millions, was it just pure hubris to think no one would ever call him on such a story? And his claim to "misremember" is the most absurd of all: Despite complete chaos and shock, people in war zones are in such a state of hyper-vigilance that they tend to remember everything.
I suspect that Williams has been telling stories like this his whole life in one form or another. Sure, he might have thought that coming off as Sebastian Junger might have made him cooler, more heroic, giving him a leg up against the competition, but he probably told the story for the same reason anyone ever tells a tall tale: it's just a better story than how it really happened. And if you tell a story over and over for long enough, it can become very real in your mind. Much more vivid than the truth. That may be pathology, but it's also human nature.
I don't know what happened, but I do know that this is not the end of Brian Williams. Our national celebrity obsession dictates a second chance for him, and forgiveness is as much as part of the celebrity equation as schadenfreude.
As Muhammad Ali liked to say, the measure of a man is not taken when he's on top. It's what happens when he gets knocked on his ass that counts...
Brian Williams will be back, but one way or another he'll never be the same.